A Western that comes across as quite amiable and genial, funny and cheerful, in spite of dealing with quite dark material. Joel McCrea stars as a saddle tramp who in his own words, at the very start of the film, and in first-person narration, tells us, ‘Earth and sky and a horse…what more could a man want?’ Well that’s all he wants but that is precisely what the narrative will deprive him of.
At the start of the film, he goes visit an old friend of his, a widower with four children who instantly gets killed in an accident after borrowing McCrea’s horse – a rodeo horse who tends to buck at the sound of gunshot — and so our saddle tramp gets saddled with four young boys. In order to feed them, McCrea goes to work in a ranch. But the rancher won’t hire anyone with children so the kids have to hide out in a camp. They are soon joined by a young girl, an orphan who’s run away from her uncle’s because – and it’s as clear as Hollywood film of that era can show – he’s been sexually abusing her. There are other strands to the narrative, the rancher who MaCrea works for is involved in a dispute with his Mexican neighbouring rancher (played by Antonio Moreno, the silent film star) over the theft of cattle; the developing romance between the runaway orphan, who conveniently turns out to be nineteen, and McCrea; all get resolved in the end.
Ehsan Khoshbakht, in his write-up on the film for the Ritrovato catalogue offers several insights into the film: it’s a rare example of first-person voice-over in a Western; it belongs to a small cycle of westerns in which the cowboy’s time in the blissful presence of children chimes with the end of the frontier and the beginning of settlement (3 Godfathers); the way the McCrea’s horse functions in the film as a source of comedy and tragedy.
For me, what makes Saddle Tramp stand-out from a run-of-the mill B Western is how a film full of so much darkness – a death that leaves four children orphaned, an orphan that has to run away from home due to sexual abuse, racial hatreds between whites and Mexicans that blame each other for something caused by someone else; and ultimately the hero’s choice of responsibility and resultant loss of freedom – can all result in something so cheerful, so likeable, so amiable. Therein lies Fregonese’s art. And MaCrea’s, who must surely be amongst the most amiable and genial leading men of the Classic period. How the film’s ending finesses the loss of American culture’s most prized quality –Liberty – and how that’s contextualised with a continued longing for it that puts in tension with sex, education, home, civilisation, the past and the future – all aspects of a pursuit of happiness — and this at the height of the McCarthy era, is worth an essay in itself.
Burt Lancaster got his contract with Hal B. Wallis at Paramount on the basis of a test directed by Byron Haskin with Wendell Corey and Lizabeth Scott for Desert Fury. Lucky for him, the film was not ready to shoot for another six months and he was able to fit in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers(1946) for producer Mark Hallinger at Universal beforehand. Desert Fury started shooting two weeks before the release of The Killers but there were already whisperings of Lancaster as a big new star, and the whisperings were so loud that Hallinger gave him first billing and a big publicity build-up rather than the little ‘and introducing….’ title at the end of the credits that was then typical, and is indeed the billing offered Wendell Corey in Desert Fury as you can see in the poster above. Before Desert Fury started shooting, Hal Wallis knew he had a big fat star on his hands and that his part had to be beefed up so as to capitalise on it.
By the time the film was released on September 24th, 1947,, Burt Lancaster was the biggest star in the film. The Killers hit screens on the 29th of August 1946. As Kate Buford writes, Ít was an extraordinary debut for a complete unknown. Overnight he was a star with a meteoric rise ¨faster than Gable´s, Garbo´s or Lana Turner,¨as Cosmopolitan said years later (Buford, loc 1260). In New York the movie, ‘played twenty-four hours a day at the Winter Garden theatre, ‘where over 120,000 picture-goers filled the 1,300 seat theatre in the first two weeks, figures Variety called “unbelievably sensational.”‘ Brute Force was the fourth film Lancaster made, after I Walk Alone, but it was the second to be released, on June 30th 1947. According to Kate Buford, it too ‘set set first-week records at movie houses across the country’ (loc 1412).
Lancaster’s status as a star is reflected in the lobby card and poster above, where in spite of being billed third, what´s being sold is what Burt Lancaster already represented, the publicity materials giving a false impression that he is much more central to the narrative than is in fact the case. His image dominates in both, and even the tag lines are attributed to him: ‘I got a memory for faces…killer´s faces…Get away from my girl…and get going’, is the tagline in the lobby card. The text on the poster reads, ´Two men wanted her love…the third wanted her life.
In the ad below, he´s billed second, as ´the sensation of The Killers, Dynamite with the fuse lit’
When trying to recapture a past moment in relation to cinema, it´s often useful to look at trailers and other paratextual publicity materials. Trailers hold and try to disseminate the film´s promise to viewers. Of course, its purpose is to sell, to dramatise its attractions so that viewers will go see it. And of course, they often lie, dramatising not what is but what they hope will sell. That said, those promises, lies and hopes are often very revealing.
As you can see above, the trailer is selling melodrama — violent passions — in a magnificent natural setting filmed in Technicolor. Burt Lancaster’s name is only mentioned 39 second into the 1.41 trailer, after Lizabeth Scott with her strangeness and her defiance of convention and after John Hodiak with his secrets and coiled snakeyness. And Lancaster’s introduced as ‘hammer fisted’ Tom Hanson, erroneously giving the impression that this will be an action film. But note too that by the end of the trailer, Lancaster is given top billing.
According to Kate Buford, in Burt Lancaster: An American Life, Lancaster thought ‘Desert Fury would not have lunched anybody’, later ‘dismissing it as having ‘starred a station wagon’ (loc 1157). The film is really a series of triangles: Eddie (John Hodiak) and Tom (Burt Lancaster) are both in love with Paula (Lizabeth Scott), Fritzy (Mary Astor) has already had an affair with Tom who is currently pursuing an affair with her daughter Paula, Paula and Johnny (Wendell Corey) are both in love with Eddie etc. I have made a not-quite-video essay that nonetheless well illustrates the Johnny-Eddie-Paula triangle, surely one of the queerest of the classic period, which can be seen here:
Tom is really a fifth wheel in the narrative. But by the time the film started shooting, Burt Lancaster was already the biggest star in it. His part was beefed up to take his new status into account, scenes were added, According to Gary Fishgall, the film was based on a 1945 novel, Desert Town by Ramona Stewart, and ‘ Lancaster’s role was an amalgam of two of the novel’s characters: the embittered, sadistic deputy sheriff, Tom Hansen, and a likeable highway patrolman named Luke Sheridan. Neither character was romantically linked to Paula (p.55). But in the film, he ends up with Lizabeth Scott at the end. All these additions probably contributed to the film seeming so structurally disjointed.
In Desert Fury Tom, a former rodeo rider, just hangs around waiting for Paula to get wise to Eddie, leaving her enough rope to act freely, as he does with colts when taming them, but not enough so that she hangs herself, or so he thinks. Really, he’s extraneous. He gets to walk into the sunset with Paula at the end of the film but the film really ends once Paula and Fritzy kiss, on the lips. He certainly doesn’t get much to do during it, except for a couple of great scenes where Fritzy tries to buy him into marrying her daughter (above) and another bit of banter when she thinks he’s come to accept her offer (below). Mary Astor steals both scenes. In fact she steals everything. Every time she appears, her wit, weariness, intelligence, the intensity of her love for her daughter — she lifts the film to a level it probably doesn’t deserve to be in. But Lancaster is good. These are the only scenes in the film where he looks like he’s enjoying himself.
Tom is the closest the film has to a ´normal character’. Indeed, aside from the character he plays in All My Sons (1948) this is the closest Lancaster had come to such a type during the whole of his period in film noir in the late 40s and which includes all of his films up to The Flame and the Arrow in 1950. Even in Variety Girl, which is an all-star comedy where he and Lizabeth Scott spoof the hardboiled characters they’re associated with, the surprise is that they’ve already created personas to spoof in such a short time (see below).
According to Fishgall, ‘Lancaster –billed third before the film’s title — acquitted himself well in the essentially thankless other man’ role. Still, if Desert Fury had marked his screen debut as originally planned, it is unlikely that he would have achieved stardom quite so quickly. Not only did the film lack the stylish impact of The Killers, but so did the actor. Without the smouldering intensity of the Swede and his first pictures’ moody black and white photography, he appeared to be more of a regular fellow, and guy-next-door types rarely become overnight sensations’ (p. 67).
In Desert Fury we’re told that unlike the drugstore cowboys who are now criticising him, Tom used to be the best rodeo rider there was but a while back, whilst wrestling a steer, he got thrown off and is now all busted up inside. Being ‘busted up inside’ is what all the characters Burt Lancaster plays in the late ’40s have in common. He thinks of returning to the rodeo all the time but knows he can never be as good. He used to be a champ, now all he can hope for is to be second best. He knows he ‘ain’t got what it takes anymore’. He’s in love with Paula and she knows it. But she doesn’t know what she wants. He think he does: ‘you’re looking for what I used to get when I rode in the rodeo. The kick of having people say “that’s a mighty special person” I’d like to get that kick again. Maybe I can get it with just one person saying it’. He will, but he’ll have to wait until the end of the movie.
But even in this, Lancaster doesn´t play entirely nicey-poo, true-blue, throughout, and his Tom is given moments of wanton bullying and cruelty where he gets to abuse Eddie just because he’s a cop and wants to. And it´s interesting that it´s that moment, which jives so well with the ´brute force´Lancaster was already known for, and which would attach itself to his persona for many a year, that is the one chosen for the trailer.
According to Robyn Karney, in Burt Lancaster: A Singular Man, ‘As the straightforward moral law officer in a small Arizona town who rescues the object of his affections from the dangerous clutches of a murderous professional gambler, Burt had little to do other than look strong, handsome and reliable. Despite Wallis’ much vaunted rewrites, the role of the Sheriff Tom Hanson remained stubbornly secondary and uninteresting, with the limelight focused on John Hodiak as the villain, fellow contract players Elizabeth Scott and Wendell Corey’ (p.31).
I mainly agree with Robyn Karney except for four points, two textual and stated above: the first is that even in this Lancaster is playing a failure, someone once a somebody that people talked about but now all busted up inside; the second is that that element of being ´busted up inside´leads to a longing that gets displaced onto Paula. If the rodeo is what made feel alive and gave him a reason to live before his accident, now it´s Paula, and the idea that she might also be an unobtainable goal leads to his outbursts of unprovoked violence towards the rival for his affections, Eddie (John Hodiak).
The other two points of interest are extra textual. Desert Fury is gloriously filmed by Charles Lang. A few years later, in Rope of Fury, Lang would film Lancaster as a beauty queen: eyelashes, shadows and smoke, lips and hair (see below):
Here, even with his pre-stardom teeth and his bird´s nest of a hairdo, Lancaster sets the prototype for the Malboro Man:
He looks good in technicolour, and Lang brings out the blue of his eyes:
More importantly, the film visualises him, for the first time, as Western Hero, a genre that would become a mainstay of his career from Vengeance Valley (1951) right through Ulzana´s Raid (1972) and even onto Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1981):
Desert Fury was not well reviewed. According to the Daily Herald ‘The acting is first-class. But except for Mr. Lancaster as a speed cop, the characters in the Arizona town with their lavish clothes and luxury roadsters, are contemptible to the point of being more than slightly nauseating’ (cited in Hunter p. 27),
The Monthly Film Bulletin labelled the film a western melodrama, claiming, surprisingly, that ‘The vivid technicolor and grand stretches of burning Arizona desert give a certain air of reality to the film’. Hard for us to see this thrillingly melodramatic film, lurid, in every aspect, evaluated in the light of realism. The MFB continued with, ´This reality is however counteracted by the way in which the sharply defined, but extremely unnatural characters act. Everything is over dramatised, and the title is a mystery in that the desert is comparatively peaceful compared with the way the human beings behaved…Lizabeth Scott is suitably beautiful as Paula and Burt Lancaster suitably tough as Tom. (Jan 1, 1947, p. 139)
Thus, we can see that on the evidence above, the film was badly reviewed, Time magazine going so far as to call it, ‘impossible to take with a straight face’ (Buford, loc1293). But Burt Lancaster´s performance was either exempted from the criticism or its faults where attributed to the film rather than to himself. More importantly still, the film was a hit, Burt Lancaster´s third in a row. Finally, as I´ve discussed elsewhere, the film is now considered by many a kind of camp classic, a leading example of noir in technicolor as well as arguably the gayest film ever produced in the classic period.
Julia Scrive-Loyer is a young filmmaker, publisher and critic from Bordeaux who graduated from the EICTV film school in Cuba and currently resides in the Dominican Republic. I´ve been wanting to talk to Julia ever since I saw her beautiful new magazine, Simulacro. Its first issues is entirely devoted to the recently deceased Stanley Donen and it´s a joy to behold. Those of you who can´t speak Spanish won´t be able to read it, though its visual beauty will be evident to all. You can see it here.
If you understand English, however, you will be able to follow this conversation, which ranges from an earlier zine she published called Les oranges bleues, to ways that a younger generation is struggling to articulate and express the intersection of individual and social concerns; to the tensions inherent in balancing originality and sincerity. We do talk about Donen´s work: how Charade (1963) has a perfect script, how Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) couldn´t be made today; the infinite number of delights Funny Face (1957) offers, and the generosity inherent in those who focus their energies on transparently conveying what utopia would feel like and inciting joy.
Like with the very best conversations, one is surprised by the unexpected and memorable anecdote — here relating to a workshop with Abbas Kiorastami — and one also learns: in talking about her love of cowboys and westerns, Julia tells me how a cowboy is constantly moving through landscape and how that movement is an emotional one. Nostalgia also comes from movement: if you don´t leave somewhere, even mentally, there´s no nostalgia and there´s no longing. A cowboy is movement in every way. A cowboy´s companions are the wind and the horse. I´ve been teaching for a long time, and Julia expresses this better and with more feeling than I´m able to muster. The podcast can be listed to here:
The first of a series of conversations with young artists and intellectuals from Cuba and the Dominican Republic.
Robert Ryan had small sad eyes inset on a chiselled face atop a long lean frame. The body seemed a promise of America: large, agile, powerful – he often played cowboys (The Naked Spur, The Wild Bunch) and looked the part – but his eyes often contradicted his physique. There we often saw fear, hatred, suspicion, racism, cowardice, defeat, loneliness, want, despair. Ryan’s face is also one of the most memorable of post-war American film noir (Crossfire, Act of Violence, The Racket, Odds Against Tomorrow). It’s like his eyes were the beatniks to the Eisenhower America that was his body, one a critique of the other; a self ill at ease, in tension – often in contradiction with itself and certainly the ‘other’: Crossfire, Bad Day at Black Rock, Odds Against Tomorrow.
Ryan’s career trod that fine line between being one of the most famous actors in America but not quite being a star — the kind of ‘name’ that often headlined low budget movies (Best of the Badmen, 1951) but was relegated to support in the big pictures — between playing villains and tough-guys, which, as embodied by him, became almost indistinguishable. In his heyday, when he was billed above the title in a big-budget movie, he often played the bad guy (Bad Day at Black Rock, 1955). In his fine new biography of the actor, The Lives of Robert Ryan, J.R. Jones writes, ‘’Long after Ryan had grown frustrated with his sinister screen persona, he continued to play men twisted by hatred or bigotry if they promised great drama that would change minds’.
He had the good fortune to work with directors we continue to be interested in: Jean Renoir (The Woman on the Beach, 1947), Joseph Losey (The Boy With Green Hair, 1948), Jacques Tourneur (Berlin Express, 1948) Max Ophuls (Caught, 1949), Nicholas Ray (Born to be Bad, 1950; Flying Leathernecks, 1951: On Dangerous Ground, 1951), Fritz Lang (Clash by Night, 1952), Bud Boetticher (Horizon West, 1952), Anthony Mann (The Naked Spur, 1953), Sam Fuller (The House of Bamboo, 1955) and many others..
It was also luck that landed him at RKO at a time when the studio was in dire need of leading men due to the war; and at a time when — partly due to resources, partly to post-war malaise – RKO began to specialise in the kind of lower-budget mood films, ones where shadows articulated the distress and longings of a generation of men themselves struggling with –processing — a knowledge — sometimes a personal experience of — transgression, of the quasi- criminal, that men who’d lived through the war so often didn’t want to speak about; that’s what Ryan’s small, deep-set eyes, so full of sorrow and tenderness, so quickly prone to anger and violence, could so beautifully express. Jones’ book charts the extent to which ‘he invested the genre with a string of neurotic and troubling portrayals that still reverberate through popular culture’.
I learned a lot from reading J.R. Jones The Lives of Robert Ryan (Wesleyan University Press, 2015). The book is very good at delineating Ryan’s childhood. Ryan came from a well-to-do family, one well-established in the city’s Democratic machine, oiling it appropriately and getting well-greased in return by benefitting from the patronage the party, when in office, could offer. Ryan’s family ran a construction company, The Ryan Company, one that in the late twenties was worth $4 million. Whilst his background in sport in general and boxing in particular was heavily publicised by his home studio, there were other aspects that were seen as being less useful to his persona: his class background, his degree at Ivy-League Dartmouth, the fact that Nelson Rockefeller was a fraternity brother at Psi Upsilon.
I was intrigued to read that Ryan had got a relatively late start as an actor, 28, and that he’d studied with Max Reinhardt. Ryan delighted in the acrobatics of Douglas Fairbanks and adored comediennes like Fanny Brice and showmen like George M. Cohen. But in terms of acting, the book highlights his admiration for Spencer Tracy (‘one of the great masters,’ loc 2937, Kindle), Henry Fonda (with whom he founded the Plumstead Playhouse, a regional theatre company) and Fredric March (‘Ryan’s hero’, loc 5317).
There’s a superb anecdote about the making of The Iceman Cometh (John Frankenheimer, 1973) where Jeff Bridges is cast but not sure he wants to do the film, as he’s then thinking of maybe pursuing a career in music, until Marvin calls him, yells ‘stupid ass!’ and hangs up. One could learn a lot from working with Fredric March, Lee Marvin, and Robert Ryan. ‘As an actor,’ says Bridges of Ryan, ‘he stood alone for me’. Of their scenes together, Jones writes, ‘Bridges is the one who looks nervous, giving the role his all but often giving too much; Ryan, ever the minimalist, pared his performance down to the bare essentials but made every reaction count. Spencer Tracy had upstaged Ryan in much the same fashion nearly twenty years earlier, in Bad Day at Black Rock’.
So much attention has been devoted to The Method that one forgets that there are other traditions of acting in American cinema, ones that come via the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, repertory theatre, television or even, as in Ryan’s case, Reinhardt. One can see a commonality and lineage amongst these groups of actors (Tracy, March, Fonda, Marvin, Ryan, Bridges) and that these traditions are also ones that deserve closer scrutiny.
Ryan was part of a rare handful of film stars – Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, Fredric March, Charlton Heston –that was truly passionate about acting and that kept trying to learn and expand their range by returning to the stage, often in classic roles. Ryan played Coriolanus on Broadway and was Anthony to Katharine Hepburn’s Cleopatra in rep; he did several Eugene O’Neill classics (Long Days Journey Into Night, The Iceman Cometh) and other more homegrown staples of the theatrical repertoire (Born Yesterday, The Time of Your Life, The Front Page, Our Town etc.). He even inaugurated a Berlin musical on Broadway in 1962 playing the title role, Mr. President.
Ryan was a lifelong liberal and, as a child of the Democratic machine in Chicago, he knew the power that comes from mucking in and getting involved in politics. J. R. Jones notes his involvement most of the famous liberal candidacies of his day: He supported Helen Gahagan Douglas’ run for an open Senate seat against Richard Nixon’s dirty smear tactics, and would later support Adlai Stevenson and J.F.K ; he got involved in the civil rights struggles through his friendship with Harry Belafonte; he spoke out against the Vietnam War and supported Eugene McCarthy; in fact, he stumped for all the high profile left liberal causes of his day, like so many movie starts did. J.R. Jones interestingly points out, however, that unlike many of his peers, he was a political pragmatist. He did not, for example, vote for Henry Wallace. ‘Wallace wanted to give equal rights to women and racial minorities, abolish the Un-American Activities Committee, and dismantle America’s nuclear arsenal, all attractive positions to Ryan.’ But he thought votes for Truman would throw the election to the Republicans and he lived the dogma he’d been raised on: ‘Vote the Party, not the Man’.
What is to me more interesting is Ryan’s political involvement at a grass roots level. Jones meticulously delineates the efforts of Ryan and his wife, Jessica Cadwalader, a free-thinker and novelist, with the launching of the Oakwood School, the various negotiations with neighbours, the conflicts with the Board of Governors, the ultimate success in getting the right head teacher. According to Jones, ‘Ryan often told people the school was the most important thing he’d ever done’.
Jones’ The Lives of Robert Ryan is richly researched and very illuminating. Jones got access to an undated twenty-page manuscript Ryan had written on his family and early life for his children. He also got access to manuscripts Ryan’s wife Jessica had left behind on Hollywood and the movie business. He charts Ryan’s career and is even able to give figures for the salary he got for most pictures.
I finished reading the book wishing Jones had delved more deeply into the films themselves. For example, of my own favourite, The Set-Up, Jones tells us that according to his wife, Ryan ‘takes more pride in that movie than any other he ever made’. We’re shown how the film was based on a narrative poem that became a New York Times best-seller in 1928 and that Ryan had first read it in college; how the original protagonist was changed from black to white for the movies; how, like Hitchcock’s Rope, the duration of the narrative is the film’s running time, how the film influenced most other boxing films including Scorsese’s Raging Bull; how the film made Ryan a beefcake favourite with the bobby-soxers, and how after he saw it Cary Grant told Ryan, ‘My name’s Cary Grant. I want you to know that I just saw The Set-Up and I thought your performance was one of the best I’ve ever seen’. Re-reading the section on The Set-up I realised that it’s very good on the film’s production, its style, its reception and conclude that if he’d devoted as much time to each film, the book would be impossibly long.
Jones tells us more than a lot, in a carefully annotated style that provides evidence for what he says. It is to his credit and that of Robert Ryan’s enduring fascination that we want to know more.